YAGM Retreats

10006958_10153971062685074_92670092_nEmily explains why retreats are so vital during a YAGM year:

Alright, big revelation comin’ at ya. You might want to sit down.

Here it goes:

YAGM is hard sometimes.

Woah, right?

Ok, enough with the attempts to be witty. Seriously, though. YAGM is tough.

Yes, I get to live alongside wonderful people in a beautiful place for a year. Yes, I get to learn so many things about a new country and culture. Yes, I have seen elephants and sat on the beach.

However, I am also living so far from home that I actually have no idea how many miles really separate me from my family. I am living in an area where the first language isn’t English. I am forced to go outside of my comfort zone just to do something as simple as get groceries. I am forced to face the remnants of apartheid head-on whether I like it or not. I see the beauty of this country and its people, but I also see the oppression and heartache.

Sometimes, all of these things weigh on me and my spirits. There are times when I just want to vent and let it all out. Luckily, I’m not the only person called to live and serve here. My YAGM year came with a built-in set of best friends and shoulders to lean on.

I honestly don’t think I would survive this year without the love and support of my fellow YAGM-SA family. However, we are pretty spread out across the country and it can get pretty expensive to talk on the phone all the time. This is precisely why retreats are so important.

For those of you on Facebook, you may have seen my pictures from our first retreat in November as well as our most recent one last week. Those albums are full of gorgeous pictures of beaches, mountains, good food, sunsets, and more. To many, these pictures make it seem like the words “YAGM retreat” are just code for “fancy vacation.”

In one way, retreats could be considered a vacation. We leave our homes (sites), venture to unknown places, and take a bit of a “break” from our everyday lives. We meet up with great friends, have fun, and eat wonderful food. However, that is not the point or reason for these retreats.

YAGM retreats serve as a time of community, reflection, discussion, spiritual discernment, and more. We have incredible conversations about our place in YAGM, South Africa, the United States, and the world. We bask in the rapid-fire English conversation and make jokes that only other YAGMs would understand. Our hearts, spirits, and souls are rejuvenated and reawakened. Generally, we leave with a new sense of calling and excitement to get back to our sites and communities.

So, yes, we have spent time on the beach, hiking in the mountains, and seeing elephants. However, we have also dealt with questions like “What is the power and privilege that I carry with me and how does that affect my life back home and here in South Africa?” and “How do I even attempt to say good-bye to people who have helped shape my life and who have welcomed me into their lives?”.

Trust me, discussing questions like these aren’t easy and don’t exactly fit into my definition of a “vacation.” However, they are necessary conversations to have and I wouldn’t choose to have them with anyone other than my lovely YAGM-SA family.

In my experience, YAGM retreats have been life-giving, incredibly fun, challenging, definitely needed, and much, much more than a “fancy vacation.”

Mentoring Communities

Country Coordinator Rev. Tessa Moon Leiseth recently wrote on the Leiseth family blog about retreats and the value of mentoring communities:

I have an incredibly interesting call. Maybe you’re thinking it is because I am living overseas and am continually doing new things. True. But I actually say it is interesting because I get to do two very different yet related things at the same time. I am in South Africa as a representative of the ELCA. I engage with the partner church here, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa (ELCSA). And, at the same time, I am working closely with and providing global and faith formation opportunity and mentorship for young adults from the United States. It seems pretty unique to be able to do both of those things at once.

I have just returned from a week that was solely about the young adults. Two times during the program year we meet up somewhere in the country for the sake of a “retreat.” We did this just two weeks ago in Coffee Bay, a backpackers village in the midst of seaside Xhosa villages in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. We stayed at a backpackers accommodation (a bit like a hostel) and spent the week together. Jon, Isaac, and Sophia joined us for the second half of the week when the kids had a 4-day weekend on school break.

If you look at our family pictures, it will look like we just went to the beach. And do look at the pictures because the landscape was stunning. And, while the sand and the ocean were a fabulous treat, our stay at Coffee Bay was not the same as a vacation.

In her book, Big Questions Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith, Sharon Daloz Parks writes something that puts language to much of why retreats are an essential component of the YAGM (Young Adults in Global Mission) program:

“To travel [or, to live a YAGM-year] is to find oneself part of a larger commons, and it can serve the formation of a more spacious faith. Mentoring communities on the road and back at home can create contexts in which young adults can tell their stories, surface their questions, debrief, and thus repattern their sense of meaning and faith on behalf of adequate knowing of self and world. If this happens well, young adults become more adequately prepared for leadership in an increasingly diverse and complex world”

When we get together for retreats, we have soooooo much to talk about and so I wonder how we are doing on the above. But I think that Daloz Parks is right on about the important roles of community, reflection, and mentoring. And, if we don’t get together for those times of reflection, we ended up skipping right past this really important processing time. Sometimes it happens formally. Sometimes it happens informally. Regardless, it is incredibly important that space is created for a mentoring community to come alongside young adults in the midst of their journeys.

So what do we do when we are together for retreats? Here are some of the things we do: worship, reflection, conversation, physical activity (hiking, etc.), rest time, one-on-one conversations with me, cultural learning (highlight this time was drumming lessons), eating, theological conversation, etc. At this retreat, I led some reflection and learning around power and privilege, an important aspect of our experience in South Africa. At each retreat, Jon has led a half-day session on vocation and identity. This, too, is an important component for these young adults.

After you’re done reading this, take a look at the Flickr photos linked from the sidebar on this page.  Take a look at the young adults. Do they look like they’re having fun? You bet. But if you look closely, you will also see some others things happening: life-long friendships, global-formation, justice-awareness and advocacy, accompaniment, and faith-formation. And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.